First published on Christian Converser
The narrow church / broad church paradigm fits pretty well with the conservative/humanitarian theological split. Conservatives tend to prefer working within their own limited sphere of similar theologies within the Church as a whole, whilst humanitarians are generally more disposed to outreach and working with people from across a range of different denominational and theological views. The broad church approach is much closer to the ideal of unity within the Christian faith. Whilst it can be understood that there will remain some key areas of separation in terms of key dogmas of Christian churches, such as the deity of Jesus Christ, many of the theological differences are not sufficiently good reasons for churches to shun those outside their denominational affiliation. There exist on the Internet a number of “discernment sites” which are majorly preoccupied with labelling a number of high profile churches as “heretical” or “apostate”. On closer examination, the operators of these sites generally have a very conservative set of theological views and hold that these views are superior to all others. However, they are generally excessively prescriptive of their viewpoints despite the existence of significant volumes of scholarly research devoted to forming alternative viewpoints on the chosen subjects. It is therefore necessary to understand that often there are no clear certainties about many of the doctrines which are taught in churches being as they are based on Scripture for which the original context is not always clear and which has been translated from the original language with ambiguity in relation to modern understanding.
But outside of these sites everyone is slighting everyone else for doctrinal differences, and it is a big deal in the evangelical community. Now, the purpose of this site is to examine and study some of those differences in depth. We feel we should avoid strong criticism of some theologies, except where they are actively causing harm to Christians. Dispensationalism is one theology that is causing harm, because it is tied up with conspiracy theories and false prophecies about the direction the world is going in, and causes believers to spend too much time focusing on the unknown future events. Complementarianism is another example, because it teaches harmful ideas about human sexuality. A third example is Nationalism, which promotes political alignments and beliefs that create great division. There are also those theological viewpoints which are considered cultic in nature and which have led to certain movements following them to be classified as cults, such as those which elevate a leader of a movement to some kind of equivalent stature to Jesus, or those which deny Jesus’ deity. So where we see theologies that actively cause harm, we will particularly highlight them on this blog, and we may refer to particular denominations that practice them, but prefer not to name individual leaders or churches to the greatest possible degree.
The problem with a narrow church is that they cease to be relevant to society. The narrowness that they practice alienates people from joining them or receiving a witness and becoming converted. Narrow churches often have few or no outreach ministries, or work with parachurch ministries across denominational boundaries. For these types of churches, growth in numbers is either internal (from families) or from people that have transferred from other churches, and their impact on growing the Kingdom is therefore minimal. The problem with narrowness in general is that it creates unnecessary division in the church. A clear example is what has been happening in the US during and since the Trump presidency, with the key issues of racism, nationalism and political allegiance causing a massive fault line to split denominations such as the SBC. The roots of the SBC’s problems came out of their earlier “Conservative Resurgence” beginning in the late 1970s and this continues to the present with the Conservative Baptist Network. In other words, a conscious choice from a segment of SBC to define a narrow theological path has produced enduring controversy and conflict within the denomination, and it is that basic aligned to conservatism that is primarily responsible. In fact the conservative wing of SBC is essentially premised on allegiance and alignment to the Republican Party, a form of Nationalism, which will likely lead to further splits in years to come. The problem for conservative / narrow churches is that these divisions are a great distraction from the work of soul winning or evangelical outreach. They are an unnecessary distraction, as well as offending new believers and members who leave for other less conflicted churches and take ministries with them. Hence that narrow church ends up staying narrow unless they make a conscious choice to change direction and become broad. The US church as a whole is paying a heavy price for what amounts to idolatrous obeisance to the recent presidency, largely on the basis of seeking and obtaining worldy political power, the impacts of which will continue to be felt for a long time. We’ll have more to say about that in a subsequent part of this series. Suffice it to say all three of the concerning theologies listed above are strongly associated with doctrinal conservatism.
For Christian humanitarians, a broad church approach is felt to be far more constructive in the longer term. This approach is fundamental to the success of parachurch ministries, and is healthy for individual churches to follow. A broad church will engage in a range of outreach ministries and often can become successful at growing its membership through these. A broad church will also work with other churches to achieve ministry outcomes. Ecumenism is a generally well understood concept that involves different types of broad churches working together to achieve particular outcomes within the Christian community and the world, when it is recognised that the overall cause of the Church and its impact within the wider world matters more than denominational or theological boundaries. It is necessary to apply a critical eye to some theologies that are more commonly seen in broader focused churches where these cause demonstrable harm to Christians. Some of these are likely to be in areas of sexuality and sanctity of human life.
In the community where this blog is written, observance and and service has taken place with large churches that are both broad and narrow. The narrow churches actually started out broad and became narrow over time. In one case, there was a change of leadership when a charismatic pastor stepped down and his replacements had different personalities (an illustration of the difficulty in building a church based on celebrity or popularity). In another church, it appears to stem from political allegiances, and perhaps from changing the focus of the church to be more like a clone of some major overseas churches. The result in these churches was a close down of outreach ministries and over time becoming less relevant. There were other issues as well, but becoming narrow was definitely an important outcome that happened with these churches. The broad church used in this example is one which has had its ups and downs, but has remained relevant with outreaches and partnerships within the church and community. Broad churches are our preferred solution for becoming members of and serving in, because the range of ministries make for a rich life and give plenty of opportunities to contribute.
We can understand the broad / narrow or humanitarian / conservative approach in this context as being one of questions over the importance of theological doctrine and how relevant it is to understand and apply doctrine to everyday life. It is important to have sound doctrine in the Church and to have an understanding of how theology is formed and the value it holds in helping believers in their everyday lives. What is not helpful is an excessive focus on one particular aspect of doctrinal belief or theological theme to the exclusion of all others. Provided a theological belief is not harmful, it can be considered just another variation of what is already taught in various churches about Christian faith and which are generally backed by sound scholarly research and study, based on the different ways in which Scripture can be interpreted, including various possible contexts and translational considerations. So whilst the importance of good doctrine and theology is recognised, insisting on rigid adherence to a particular type of doctrine or theology is not. It could be a reasonable observation that most narrow churches or narrow church beliefs are driven by empire building or power broking. They often do not have much relevance to what is good for everyday people in the pews, and everything to do with what is good for people in leadership positions, who want to curry favour with worldly authorities, or have the ability to dominate or control others, Such assumptions are harmful and we believe are particularly so in the case of three particular theologies mentioned earlier in this article.
Well that wraps up this part, and in the next parts, we will look at further examples of the conservative vs humanitarian dichotomy.